Climate Change and Security in South Asia

<br><EM>Dev Raj Dahal</EM>

Jan. 10, 2011, 5:45 p.m. Published in Magazine Issue: Vol.: 04 No .-14 Jan. 07-2011 (Poush 23,2067)

The science of climate change is well covered by scientists in their publications. Climate change research focuses more on the physical effects such as protecting the Earth’s atmosphere from a hazardous rise in temperature. Climate change has become one of the causes of droughts, floods, rise of sea level causing coastal tragedies, melting of ice, fresh water shortage, shifting climate zone, ozone depletion, loss of rain forests, biodiversity, etc. The post-Cartesian paradigm rooted in life science reveals the security implications of climate change. Industrial civilization is melting the Earth’s third largest pool of glaciers of Himalayas and Tibetan plateau that nourished South Asian civilization. The drying of headwater due to changed land use combined with climate change is also eroding the land’s capacity to support life and livelihood and risks inducing migration of people with the potential to flash local and trans-border conflicts. Warming temperature and atmospheric pollution by carbon dioxide build up, are making the monsoon rains unpredictable and affecting agriculture and health. Climate change imposes economic effects on human security and social peace.

South Asians are living in a society of increasing population and decreasing natural resources. Continuous efforts by people to satisfy their development needs are damaging pastures, forests and source of water on which they depend for their sustainable livelihoods. Vulnerable regions require high level of resource investment in adaptation measures. Excessive consumption of fossil energy, deforestation and desertification are alarming us giving us consciousness of our relations with the vital forces of nature and different orders of life—plants, insects, birds and animals linked to each other within the life’s cosmic web. It is defining an option for our common future. The recent Climate Change Summit at Cancun has left the negotiation for balancing development needs with meeting the target of emission control unresolved. How can a symbiosis of politics, economy and ecology contribute the security of our freedom, food and habitat? Can the environmental cost of production such as pollution, carbon emission and depletion of ecosystem be included in our development policy so that a quest for human security does not undermine the natural basis of our existence? Does comprehensive security become a response for South Asia?

Beyond State-Centric Security
Environmental security has become a main proposition at international conferences mobilizing resistance for ethically informed policies. The mountain regions of the Himalayas, whose environmental system and resources are very important for the densely populated Gangetic plain, are vulnerable in ecological terms. The region’s average temperature has increased by 1.2 degree Celsius and could get warmer with 2 degree Celsius by 2030. The overall monsoon rainfall indicates a decrease and low aggregation of snow in the Himalayas. This environmental change has brought four critical challenges to conventionally defined state-centric security: First, the effects of climate change transcend domestic and foreign policy boundaries of nation-states. Now security studies require planetary awareness and its linkages with various life-world and non-life sub-systems. Second, realpolitik approach to national security planning is insufficient. Our survival requires a judicious balance between the awareness of human freedom and nature’s level of tolerance to it. This means mutual cooperation and surveillance among the affected nation-states and people can stem its negative spill-over effects unleashed by the corruption of free human will. Third, risk of mutual vulnerability to climate change requires mutual security through collective action. Finally, governance of climate change—both policy formulation and implementation—entails regional and international framework beefed up by the states, non-state and transnational actors and their mutual accountability. Since environmental challenges do not care human made borders what requires for its solution is ‘comprehensive security.’ This needs the establishment of related institutions to provide early warning and monitor the international climate regime governed by environmental treaties and impose graduated sanctions for violating its standards mutually agreed upon by leaders. Future conflicts go beyond state-centric security limits if we refuse to acknowledge our systemic ties with the society, environment and future generations.

Rethinking Development
Development based on ‘rational choice’ discounts both the social costs for society and the ecological costs for our common Earth. Garrett Hardin argues, “Freedom in a common brings ruin to all.” In such a context, weaker sections of society have to bear more risks because they possess limited means. A development which does not recognize the limits to natural resource exploitation and is not amply ‘system-sensitive’ brings insecurity to all. Environmental degradation and poverty are closely tied to an intricate system of cause and effect. Without certain amount of democratic equity to all people, poverty fuels the source of insecurity and imposes challenges to the political order, stability and peace.  Neither environmental challenges can be addressed by military means nor can it be resolved in isolation from the rest of development policies—local, national and international unless a balance is struck between carrying capacity of the Earth and farsighted self-control of human beings.

Human beings themselves are mostly responsible for this climate change. Burning of too much fossil fuel—coal, oil and gas—and destroying forest cover are among main the causes. Maldives is already constructing a seawall in its most populous island to protect it from coastal tragedy. Probably, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh have to follow suit for the protection of coastal zones. Deforestation of Nepalese mountains, for example, causes flood havoc each year in Tarai, India and Bangladesh. Earlier this year, floods in Pakistan, Tarai and Gangetic plains killed many, wounded others and devastated fertile lands. The sovereignty of state did not offer security to people engaged in agriculture, industry and trade. When environmental security is transnational in nature national separateness cannot alone become a rational solution. Coordination of national, regional and international policies is essential to respond to climate change.

The security in a wider sense requires reviewing a wide range of consequences of climate change for human livelihoods, insecurity of monsoon predictions affecting agricultural, hydropower, disease pattern and subjective insecurity in facing the future with confidence. The implications of climate change have also direct and indirect effects on violent armed conflict of different kinds such as human displacements, migration, interstate war, civil war, non-state group conflict and political instability. Nepal already experiences the effects of climate change in areas like loss of Himalayan glaciers, shortage of water supply, danger of glacial lake burst of the sort  of Chho Rolpa, extreme weather events, fragile ecosystem, urban pollution, deforestation,  over digging of mountains and rocks for sand and stones in Churia hills causing soil erosion, etc. They are eroding natural shield affecting production and food supply. The emission of greenhouse gases from Nepal is small. It also has considerable opportunities to attract foreign investment in Clean Development Mechanism project including hydropower development to meet domestic needs of energy and irrigation and demand of power in northern India. A cooperative approach to development assures mutual security. An entirely rational approach to South Asian security is somewhat outdated as global climate change requires global policy response.

Urgency to Act
Sustainable development path is one way to shift from the consumption of fossil fuels (coal, old and gas) to alternative source of energy (solar, water, wind and biomass).  South Asian leaders have to upgrade the policy making and institutional capacity to address climate change by marking a transition to a low-carbon economy and to scale up interregional cooperation in hydropower, river management, flood data monitoring, etc and strive to do no harm to nature.
Dahal is Head, FES Nepal Office

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